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Special Education Advocacy sparks student’s interest in law

October 24, 2013 | Students

Some students always envision attending law school. They work tirelessly as undergraduates to build up their GPAs and study endlessly for that daunting LSAT, eventually celebrating their acceptance into law school.

For 3L Carolyn Cole, the path wasn’t so straightforward.

“It took me 26 years to figure it out,” Cole said.“So every time the 23-year-olds say they don’t know what they want to do, I tell them, ‘You don’t have to; it’s OK. It took me a really long time.’ ”

She earned two other degrees — a dual-degree in physical and health education and psychology from Queen’s University in Canada and a master of education in therapeutic recreation management from Springfield College in Massachusetts — before she decided law school was where she belonged.

Cole said she owes her direction to an unexpected job offer. After she finished her undergraduate schooling, she worked as a personal trainer, until a client offered her a very different job one day.

“One of my clients asked if I’d be interested in teaching children with autism because her best friend ran a private school for children with autism. So I randomly got the job, and it pretty much changed my life forever,” she said. “I loved every second of it and knew I wanted to do something involving individuals with disabilities, but wasn’t quite sure what it was.”

In graduate school, she studied therapeutic recreation management, which is basically using sport and recreation to help individuals with disabilities. “I liked it, but I didn’t love it. After my first semester I got sick and had to take a semester off of school. While I was home, I had a little more time to think about what I wanted to do.”

After some thought, she saw where her true interest lied: in helping individuals with disabilities get the opportunities they deserve.

Three weeks after finishing her master’s program, Cole moved to Columbus, where she found her perfect fit.

“Honestly, I could not have picked a better place to be. I feel completely comfortable around everyone, professors and students, and there’s always someone there to support you or help you out. I really didn’t think law school was going to be like that,” Cole said. “So I’m just really happy I picked Ohio State.”

Because she was interested in special education advocacy, Cole said Professor Ruth Colker, one of the leading scholars in the country in the area of special education advocacy and disability discrimination, was largely the reason she chose Ohio State.

Cole said she reached out to Colker right away, and since then Colker has been “the best mentor, supporter, and most encouraging person I could’ve asked for.” Over her 1L summer, Cole worked with Colker as a research assistant, analyzing accessible technology for individuals with disabilities.

“She’s so intelligent and passionate about (special education and the law),” Cole said. “And the combination is just really inspiring. When you talk to her, you know exactly why she’s a leader in the field. She just loves it, and I think being around her just makes me like it even more.”

While special education law inspired Cole to attend law school, her horizons have since expanded after taking Torts and Product Liability, two classes she found especially interesting. She said her goal is to combine these two areas of the law with helping individuals with disabilities because many product liability cases involve someone becoming disabled due to a product malfunctioning or a toxic substance.  “That’s my dream job, to work in product liability litigation, negotiating settlements involving individuals who have become permanently disabled, and then do my pro bono work in special education advocacy,” she said.

For now, Cole said she’s just enjoying her time in law school.

“I have absolutely loved law school,” she said. “I’ve never enjoyed school before, which makes me feel like I’m doing the right thing with my life. I think if you are there for a reason, and you know why you’re there with an endgame in mind, it’s much easier to enjoy it.”

One of the classes that contributed to her happiness was Special Education Advocacy, taught by Colker. The experiential learning course uses simulations to encourage students to research different areas of the law in order to accurately represent a party.

Special Education Advocacy was probably the best class I’ve taken thus far. I’m not just saying that because I love the topic, but it’s just completely practical,”she said. “It’s like: Here’s an IEP (Individualized Education Program); here’s your role; now study what you need to know about the law for your role.”

She emphasized liking the practical aspect of the class especially.

“You really feel like if you had to go advocate for somebody tomorrow, you would at least know what you’re doing,” she said. “Whereas in some of the other classes, it’s more studying the material – and that’s great, you’re learning what you need to know – but there are so many things you don’t know until you go do it.”

While she experienced different fields of study before settling on law school, Cole said the perfect fit made it worth the wait, and having the support of her family made her decision easier.

“I don’t think I would’ve ever been able to do it if I didn’t have the family I have,” Cole said. “They are the most selfless and supportive people I know.  When I told them I wanted to change paths and go to law school, all they said was “If that’s what you want to do, go for it.  We love you and believe you can do anything you want to do.’ I said, ‘Really? You’re not going to tell me I’m crazy?’ They didn’t. They just never, ever judge me for anything. I’m very lucky. I know not everyone has that, and that’s probably the only reason I’m where I am right now.”